#593) The Navigator (1924)

#593) The Navigator (1924)

OR “We Ship That”

Directed by Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton

Written by Clyde Bruckman & Joseph Mitchell and Jean Havez

Class of 2018 

The Plot: Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton) is a wealthy man who decides one day to propose to his neighbor Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn Maguire), not because of love, but rather just on a whim. When Betsy rejects his proposal, Rollo decides to still take the Hawaiian cruise he had already booked for them. Through a few comic misunderstandings, both Rollo and Betsy independently end up on The Navigator, a ship owned by Betsy’s father (Frederick Vroom) that is accidentally set adrift. Realizing they are lost at sea with only each other and no help in sight, Rollo and Betsy adapt to their new living situation through the kind of creative stunts and gags we have come to associate with Buster Keaton.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites the film’s historical significance and praises its “imaginative gags”. They also crib from Pauline Kael’s retrospective review of Keaton’s career, when she hailed this film as “[a]rguably Buster Keaton’s finest – but amongst the Keaton riches can one be sure?”

But Does It Really?: I’m willing to chalk this up to the historical significance of being Keaton’s first big hit, and while “The Navigator” is an inventive film with plenty of funny moments, I wouldn’t call it Keaton’s best or most memorable movie. Still, second-tier Keaton is better than most people’s best, so I have no objections with including “The Navigator” among the NFR’s Keaton collection.

Title Track/Every Ship Gets One: The Navigator of “The Navigator” was a real life cargo ship. Built in 1890, the SS Mississippi (later renamed the USAT Buford) lived many lives, providing supplies for San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, transporting refugees out of Europe during World War I, and deporting 250 radicals (including Emma Goldman) out of America as the “Russian Ark”. After being sold to a private owner, the USAT Buford was discovered in a San Francisco shipyard by Keaton’s art director Fred Gabourie. Buford was rented, renamed The Navigator, and inspired Keaton to write his next screenplay.

Wow, That’s Dated: The natives that Rollo and Betsy encounter are your typical generic natives in the kind of limited roles available for Black actors in early film. Also very dated: a joke referencing the songs “Kiss Me Again” (from the operetta “Mlle. Modeste”) and “Alice, Where Art Thou?

Other notes 

  • Shoutout to The Keaton Project. Created in 2015 by Italian film archive Cineteca Di Bologna, their mission is to restore all of Buster Keaton’s films from the 1920s. For this post, I watched their 2017 restoration of “The Navigator”.
  • Because it bears repeating: Betsy’s father is played by actor Frederick Vroom. Apparently the last name Vroom is an Anglo-Saxon name dating back to the 12th century, and comes from the Dutch word meaning pious or devout and not – as I had hoped – from the sound a race car makes.
  • As I’ve come to expect from Keaton’s films, even the intertitles are funny. “Every family tree must have its sap.” Well done.
  • This film has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The first big one for me is when Rollo is driven by his valet to see Betsy, who lives directly across the street. A hilarious visual, and social commentary to boot!
  • I still can’t get over that they used a real boat for this film, and were given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to it. This does, however, confirm my theory that “The Navigator” is just a bunch of boat-related gags strung together. It’s a movie where the set-piece came first and the script second.
  • Rollo and Betsy spend a lot of time running around the boat trying to find each other. Surely they could have heard each other’s footsteps. The boat isn’t silent too.
  • The whole bit of Rollo trying to prepare his own meal for the first time is very funny, and very relatable (Trying to open a can and it breaks on you? Been there.) I laughed pretty hard at Rollo/Buster’s stoneface as he returns from, shall we say, “losing his lunch”.
  • Tip of my hat to Kathryn McGuire, re-teaming with Keaton after playing his leading lady in “Sherlock Jr.“, and quite an adept physical comedian herself. She more than holds her own with Keaton, gamely being dragged around, dangled from ropes and so on. Who knows how big McGuire could have gotten if Hollywood had given her half a chance.
  • Yes, this film’s co-director is the same Donald Crisp who would later be an Oscar-winning character actor in MGM’s staple of stars. A prolific director throughout the silent era, Crisp was brought on “The Navigator” to direct the more dramatic scenes. Crisp, however, wanted to contribute more on the comedic scenes, which were (obviously) Keaton’s domain. This – mixed with his scenes being deemed overdramatic – led to Crisp leaving the project and Keaton reshooting most of Crisp’s scenes himself. Crisp still appears in the final film: he’s the grizzled captain in the portrait that Rollo mistakes for an intruder.
  • Another dated song reference: the pseudo-sea shanty “Asleep in the Deep“, aka “That song Goofy randomly sings in a few cartoons”.
  • Rollo may have invented the first in a long line of Rube Goldberg-style breakfast machines in movies. This movie crawled so “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” could walk.
  • I’m a sucker for old-timey diving suits. They just seems so bulky and hindering for underwater exploration. Rollo dons the gear for an extended underwater sequence, filmed partially in a large tank in Los Angeles, and partially in Lake Tahoe. Take that, “Twenty Thousand Leagues“.
  • Okay, that octopus is clearly crawling on a plate of glass in front of the camera. This is some straight-up Ed Wood nonsense.
  • Oof, these native stereotypes are brutal. Now we know why no one mentions this movie anymore.
  • “The Navigator” is one of the rare movies with a “submarine ex machina” (“Deus ex aqua-na? I’ll workshop it). This does lead to what is probably the film’s most memorable gag, when Rollo accidentally leans on a large lever, causing the ship (and the entire scene) to rotate a full 360 degrees. It’s an impressive stunt, I just wish the rest of the movie worked its way up to that better.

Legacy 

  • “The Navigator” was Buster Keaton’s fourth feature-length film and, more importantly, his first hit. With “The Navigator”, Keaton began to earn the audience and critical reception that would cement his legacy as one our finest film comedians.
  • After “The Navigator”, the real Navigator returned to civilian life, until its final voyage to Japan in 1929 to be scrapped for parts.
  • Having now seen “The Navigator”, I wouldn’t be surprised if Keaton’s 1928 follow-up “Steamboat Bill Jr.” was an excuse to use all the boat gags he couldn’t fit into this movie.
  • As for the film’s ongoing legacy, there’s not a lot of references to “The Navigator” specifically; usually just mentions in conjunction with Keaton’s more iconic films. I dunno, can I use this film as an excuse to reference “Flight of the Navigator”? Remember that movie?

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